Clifford L. Alexander, Advisor to Presidents, Dead at 88

Clifford L. Alexander Jr., whose long career as a top adviser to Democratic presidents ranged from working behind the scenes on landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act to such high-profile roles as the first black secretary of the army, died Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88 years old.

His daughter, poet Elizabeth Alexander, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Alexander has always been a strong supporter of the promises made by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society, particularly the idea that there is much government can do to alleviate racial and economic inequality. And he was part of the generation of young black leaders who, in the 1960s and 1970s, took the civil rights movement from the streets into the machinery of federal government.

As chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and, briefly, his successor, Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Alexander transformed what had been a relatively powerless agency into a central player in the fight against discrimination in the work. He resigned after Nixon demoted him from president to commissioner, criticizing the president for “a crippling lack of administrative support.”

Later, as Secretary of the Army under Jimmy Carter, he opened the doors for black officers to rise to the rank of general, including a particularly promising young colonel named Colin Powell.

“Cliff viewed his role as Secretary of the Army as a key extension of the civil rights movement, and he pioneered and implemented policies that were spectacularly effective in achieving his goal,” said Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. ., a longtime friend. in a telephone interview. “The fact that the United States military is perhaps the most integrated institution in our society can be attributed to the foresight of Clifford Alexander.”

Mr Alexander was among the few black leaders to openly criticize President Bill Clinton, arguing that he engaged with race superficially and only when politically expedient. But he was a major supporter of Barack Obama, both as an adviser and as a campaign surrogate during Mr. Obama’s run for the White House in 2008.

Coincidentally, his daughter, who was then a poetry professor at Yale and a longtime friend of the Obamas, read his poem “Praise Song for the Day” during Mr. Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

“Cliff was an American original – a civil rights pioneer whose eyes were never closed to injustice but whose heart was always open,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “He was like a father to me and an inspiration to Barack. We admired the way he fought and learned from the way he led.

Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr. was born on September 21, 1933 in Harlem. His father was a Jamaican immigrant who managed the Riverton Houses, a sprawling residential development in Harlem funded by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Unlike other Met Life developments, including Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, Riverton was integrated and most of its residents were black.

Mr. Alexander’s mother, Edith (McAllister) Alexander, was also active in city life and politics. She has served several mayors as an adviser on civil rights. She is believed to have been the first black female voter at a Democratic National Convention, in 1948.

After attending Fieldston School, a private high school in the Bronx, Mr. Alexander studied government at Harvard, where he was elected the first black student council president. He graduated in 1955 and earned his law degree from Yale in 1958.

Back in New York, he worked for a time as an assistant district attorney and as executive director of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, an anti-poverty organization founded by Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark.

He married Adele Logan, a historian, in 1959. She and their daughter survived him, as did their son, Mark, and seven grandchildren.

Both of Mr. Alexander’s children have gone on to successful careers: Elizabeth is now president of the Mellon Foundation and Mark is dean of the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University.

Mr. Alexander arrived in Washington in 1963 to serve on the staff of the National Security Council under President John F. Kennedy. Almost immediately, he also acted as an informal adviser on race, and Kennedy sent him as an observer to the March on Washington.

“The White House was in a state of clear apprehension,” Mr. Alexander told the New York Times in 2003. “If you find yourself in a position like I was in, you have a responsibility to tell people to power what you think about race. So I went out to see what was going on.

Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson brought Mr. Alexander into his circle to act as a liaison with the civil rights movement and, in particular, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Alexander quickly became Johnson’s closest adviser on race relations, tasked with garnering support from the black community for the president’s legislative priorities and assisting black candidates for Congress, including Robert C. Weaver in as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Thurgood Marshall. as a judge of the Supreme Court.

Even after Johnson appointed Mr. Alexander chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1967, he continued to rely on him as a conduit to the black community. When Dr. King was assassinated and violence erupted in Washington, Johnson sent Mr. Alexander to the streets to meet with black leaders and assess the damage.

After leaving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Mr. Alexander became the first black man to attain the rank of partner at a major Washington law firm when he joined Arnold & Porter. He hosted a syndicated television talk show, “Black on White,” from 1972 to 1976, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Washington in 1974.

As Secretary of the Army, he was tasked with continuing to rebuild the armed forces after the disaster of the Vietnam War. It was a Herculean task that involved reorienting the army around volunteers, ending racial discrimination and bringing in more women.

His stint in this post, which ended in 1981, was his last official stint in government service. But he continued to serve as an informal adviser to politicians and policy makers. He served on several boards and, in the late 1990s, as interim president and CEO of the consulting firm Dun & Bradstreet.

He and his wife founded a consulting firm, Alexander & Associates, which advised large corporations on how to reduce racial inequality. Among their most notable clients was Major League Baseball, whom they helped resolve racial disparities in the organization’s offices.

Among his tips were the following, on the importance of getting people to pay attention to you.

“Very few senators or congressmen do things just because it’s right, otherwise we’d have a much better world than we have today,” he said in a 2017 interview for the Kunhardt Film Foundation. But, he added, “if you can show someone why it’s in their interest, they can do certain things.”